Strains of microscopic organisms that live in communities inside — and upon — our bodies soon might get tested to help diagnose and prevent illness.
Mayo Clinic has announced a new collaboration with a San Francisco-based startup biotech company called Whole Biome, which has developed a product called "Complete Biome Test" that is able to generate microbiome profiles at a low cost.
"The 'microbiome' refers to the totality of microbes and genetic information that they have, their DNA, that kind of inhabit our bodies," said colorectal surgeon Dr. Heidi Nelson, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine Microbiome Program.
Much is known already, but much more remains to be discovered.
Gut microorganisms alone, for example:
• Convert indigestible food into digestible food."They harvest for us. And if they're really good harvesters, we might even gain weight as opposed to, if they're bad harvesters, we might not be able to gain weight," Nelson said.
• Produce essential enzyme components and vitamins."Things we can't do for ourselves, they help us by doing them for us," Nelson said.
• Stimulate the immune system.
• Metabolize drugs and affect whether we get a benefit from a particular drug or not.
"We're doing work in the GI tract, the gut, and, of course, we're doing work in reproductive health," Nelson said.
The collaboration with Whole Biome will, in early stages, focus on women's health. Vaginal microorganisms, vaginosis, premature rupture of membrane (or PPROM) and premature birth will be studied.
Researchers already know, for example, that "a healthy vaginal biome during pregnancy is dominated more by a lactobacilli species," Nelson said.
According to Mayo Clinic, humans have "co-evolved" with microbiomes, many of which are beneficial for health.
If collaborators can figure out the makeup of normal microbiome communities, versus abnormal ones, and create a test that checks specifically for the right balance, researchers hope pregnant women will be able to get treatments to prevent many premature births. It's another of Mayo's many steps toward coaxing the human body to heal itself and prevent illness instead of having health providers react to acute injury and illness.
For example, Mayo has clinical research studies underway that look at using a patient's own cells to create stem cells to fight heart damage after a heart attack and to prevent ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, from progressing.
The possibilities for future development of the microbiome test are also diverse.
There are nine "ecosystems" of bacteria in our mouth, for example, Nelson said. On the arm, there's an ecosystem on the dry part and a different one with microbes that live under the arm pit "where it's warm and moist."
"We historically have thought about microbes as individual pathogens. People would recognize the term a 'staff infection,' a bacterium that causes disease," Nelson said. "What we are understanding with sequencing is that we're actually more microbes than we are human cells by tenfold, and we're more microbial DNA than human DNA by probably fiftyfold. It's amazing."
Whole Biome tells visitors to its website that it "is ushering in a revolution in diagnostics and therapeutics where each individual's treatment will be driven by a comprehensive understanding and a targeted equilibration of their microbiome."
"Our early work suggests the microbiome may play a significant role in triggering preterm labor, and we are excited to take these early results into clinical trials," Nelson said.
Mayo emphasized that humans have "co-evolved with microbiomes" and that many "good microbes" exist that are helpful to human health.
"However, the human race has been systematically depleting these 'good' microbes in an attempt to eradicate the harmful ones through the use of antibiotics, antibacterial processes and prolific antimicrobial consumer products," the clinic reported.
Figuring out how to help the body reach a naturally healthier state could counteract some of that, starting first with women's health but moving on to other health specialties from there.
If a widely available test that can be administered easily to women nationwide becomes available, it could have profound financial implications for Mayo Clinic research funding.
Proceeds from Mayo Clinic Ventures intellectual property go back into research, education and patient care, saidSadhna Kohli, Ventures technology manager.